A.M.E. Bale Award @ Glen Eira City Gallery

A.M.E. BALE AWARD - Installation View 1Wednesday, 15 December 2010

A.M.E. Bale Award @ Glen Eira City Gallery

The A.M.E. Bale Travelling Scholarship and Art Prize supports, encourages and celebrates the artists who are working in such traditional styles as realist, figurative and representational. The prize encourages the continuation and perpetuation of classical training, and awards a Travelling Scholarship of $40,000, as well as two separate prizes for a painting and a work on paper at $5,000 each.

I am a self-confessed supported and admirer of figurative and representational art. I seek it out in our top commercial galleries and contemporary art exhibitions; follow and celebrate its progress and achievements in various prizes, articles in art magazines and other popular media, and on the walls of our museums and art galleries. As such, I am familiar with the work of many figurative and representational artists working in Australia today: I have their works in my collection and have discussed their oeuvre within these pages.

A.M.E. BALE AWARD - Installation View 2Therefore, I was rather surprised and astonished to walk around the exhibition of A.M.E. Bale Travelling Scholarship and Art Prize winners and finalists at the Glen Eira City Gallery without seeing or recognising among them any of our top names in figurative and representational art. It is as if this prize, which supports the perpetuation and survival of this traditional and historical art movement, is shunned by the biggest names working in this style in Australia today.

I could not conceive the reasons for it. A Travelling Scholarship to the tune of $40,000 is a serious amount of money; $5,000 each for a painting and a work on paper is also nothing to be sniffed at. In my mind’s eye, there was no rhyme or reason for the absence – or perhaps exclusion – of some of the more prominent artists whose works we may see in our most respected commercial galleries.

A.M.E. BALE AWARD - Installation View 3Granted, the Travelling Scholarship does require an artist to submit four works: a landscape, a painting of a human figure (either a portrait or a figure study), a still life, and a nude drawing. It is possible that some of our top figurative artists may lack the confidence or ability to work simultaneously in such diverse variety of genres. However, without naming names, I can immediately think of a number of younger and mid-career artists, exhibiting with some of our more prominent galleries, whose oeuvre, across all four categories, would have felt right at home on the walls of this award exhibition.

Judging by the display of the finalists’ works, it is indeed very difficult to work across a range of several genres and in different media with the same degree of skill and consistency. Naturally, some excel in landscape rather than the human figure; while for others landscape is the weakest point. Janice Allwood for example can produce a most delicious piece of drawing (such as her Sylvia), but the fluidity, the perfection of line, and the physical sensation of the body are lost when the same artist turns to oils (i.e. In the Studio). While Michelle Molinari’s landscape, View of Avon River, East Gippsland, is s superb representation of the genre in a grand manner, her portrait and still life border on the kitsch.

A.M.E. BALE Winner - Joshua MacPherson

I do agree with the judges’ choice of this year’s winner, Joshua MacPherson. His portrait of Guido Cavalieri is a memorable character study, which is also striking from compositional, colour balance, and overall execution points of view, as is his charcoal drawing, Paolo. Both of these works are strongly reminiscent of the early 20th-century Australian tonalist artists, especially of Hugh Ramsey and the Max Meldrum School. His still life, Pesce con Limone, the muted colours of which are accentuated with bright passages of yellow and green, is another equally winsome piece of contemporary painting, posited somewhere between the Spanish Baroque, Fantin-Latour, and contemporary Australian figuration. The landscape, The Windy White Path, is perhaps the weakest of the four, but, as mentioned previously, it is a momentous task to excel across several genres and diverse media.

A.M.E. BALE - Marcus CallumI would also like to single out the entries by Marcus Callum as the most worthy runner-up in this year’s prize, who I believe would have deserved to win for his striking Still Life with Lion and Buddha and a superb life drawing, Julia. Another noteworthy entrant is Simon Cowell, who is one of the very few finalists to maintain the same consistency of brushwork and execution across all his entered pieces, as opposed to switching between a highly academic, glossy finish in one genre, and a looser painterly technique in the other as can be observed within the works of the finalists in this exhibition.

A.M.E. BALE AWARD - Right to Left: Kieren Ingram, Marcus Callum, Fiona BilbroughThe traditional representation is also the key in two other Prize categories, Painting and Works on Paper. Once again I find the absence of some of our bigger names puzzling and deplorable. I must also admit the exhibition contains some of the most banal and bland paintings. It is as if, in the pursuit of figuration, such concerns as imagination, originality, and psychological depth had taken the back seat. We are faced with rows upon rows of most ordinary and prosaic portraits, nude studies, landscapes, and interiors, in which majority of the artists made no effort whatsoever to progress beyond the mere rendition of an object or a view in front of them to a more psychologically and narratively engaging work of art. In this sense, the winning work in the Painting category, Kieran Ingram’s Milika, is a worthy choice because of the masterful use of lighting in the picture and his ability to capture the psychological demeanour of the nude model. The slight distortion of the figure’s proportions ads to the sense of the dramatic within the work.

A.M.E. BALE AWARD - David CostelloThe biggest pleasure to be drawn from the Works on Paper section of the finalists’ exhibition is the artists’ virtuosity in their chosen media – pencil, pastel, charcoal, or watercolour. The winning work, Regina Hona’s In Repose, is a tour de force in the handling of the pastel medium. I would also single out Marcus Callum’s Foot Study, which is virtually as good as anything that might have come out from the Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts under the tutelage of David or Ingres.

It is also in this section that artists also seem to be able to escape the ordinary dreariness that is prevalent in the Painting section. It is as if the use of a lighter medium has liberated their thoughts and minds. David Costello’s View Five: Chrysalis illustrates this point perfectly. It depicts a boy running out naked into the world from the ‘cocoon’ of a rather shabby and gloomy interior. However, every item and object within that room is psychologically charged, adding further to the complex narrative of the drawing (David Costello is also among the finalists of the Travelling Scholarship category of the Prize).

A.M.E. BALE AWARD - Michelle MolinariSo, in conclusion, it is great to have such an award as the A.M.E. Bale Travelling Scholarship and Art Prize that is dedicated to the support, nurturing, and perpetuation of traditional, figurative, and representational art. The skills displayed by the winners and finalists within this exhibition are considerable. However, most of them do not progress beyond the most prosaic rendition of a landscape, or a mere “mapping” of a human face with hardly any attempt at psychological depth or narrative engagement. The combined prize pool of $50,000 is a fairly significant amount, and it is puzzling that this worthy prize does not attract more high-profile and mainstream artists. Their presence among the finalists would have brought more attention to the award (and its exhibition at the Glen Eira City Gallery), and placed a further emphasis on the importance and continuous preservation of this genre in the contemporary Australian painting tradition.





[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2010. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

December 2010


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